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Why Religion Should Matter When We Vote

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Should we consider a candidate's religion when we vote? For many of us, the instinctive answer is "of course not!" To do so seems somehow contrary to the idea of separation of church and state, or prejudiced, or something like that. Examined more closely, though, that instinctive reaction may not be the best answer. Faith influences action, and there is no reason to pretend otherwise when we go to the polls.

The American repulsion to considering faith when voting is in large part rooted in a famous speech given by John F. Kennedy when he was running for President in 1960. Addressing a convention of Baptist ministers in Houston, he defended himself from the accusation that his Catholic faith would lead him to "take orders from the Pope." There is no doubt that what Kennedy was addressing was prejudice against Catholics. It was a masterful speech, of the sort that makes one wistful for that time. However, it is important to recognize what Kennedy did and did not say.

What he did say, forcefully, was that he would not take orders from the Church, and that he would make his decisions "in accordance with what my conscience tells me to be the national interest, and without regard to outside religious pressures or dictates."

What he did not say, even in referring to his religious views as "his own private affair," was that those personal religious views would have no influence on his conduct in office. In other words, President Kennedy artfully established that outside forces would not force his hand, while reserving the ability to have his own personal faith remain a guide to principled action.

Sadly, this fine distinction between the unallowable (a church dictating policy) and the inevitable (personal faith influencing decision-making) has been lost, in part because of Kennedy's clumsy and inaccurate description of the separation between church and state as "absolute." Americans now expect a President who lives in two spheres: A private life, where religion is allowed, and a professional life where faith can have no influence.

The problem with this two-spheres construct is that it lacks integrity, if we understand integrity to be the integration of belief and action. What kind of faith is it that has no influence on the most important decisions we make? Why would we accept as a leader someone who divorces her deepest principles from her actions?

In the current election, all of the Presidential candidates (in either party) are Christians who seem to take their faith seriously, which makes the question posed here an important one. Would Mitt Romney's Mormon faith affect the way he conducts himself in office? I certainly hope it would, because I believe that faith (for those who have chosen to follow a faith) should be an animating principle that does direct action, not something that a leader drops at the doorway as he enters the oval office. It seems that Romney agrees, too: In a speech at the George H.W. Bush Presidential Library in December, 2007, Governor Romney echoed the distinction (between external influence and personal faith) that Kennedy implied. While recognizing that "no authorities of my church, or of any other church for that matter, will ever exert influence on presidential decisions," Romney went on to explain that "I believe in my Mormon faith and I endeavor to live by it. My faith is the faith of my fathers -- I will be true to them and to my beliefs."

Imagine this: There is a grave national crisis, perhaps an escalating conflict with another nation. The President must make a tough choice on how to respond. As a Christian, he reflects on this decision in prayer. If we tell ourselves that the experience of prayer, that deep and solemn reflection, really has no influence on the decision he then makes, we are fooling ourselves. The connection between faith and action, even in the absence of external pressure from a church, not only is real but should be real. We are better off knowing a candidate's personal faith and the effect it will have than continuing to pretend that there is no connection between faith and action. We need to press for honest answers from our politicians as to how their faith influences their work.

In a January 8 op-ed in The Washington Post, Baylor University President Ken Starr correctly observed that "the litmus for our elected leaders must not be the church they attend but the Constitution they defend." He is right, but that is not the end of the story. We should not limit the path to leadership based on the church someone attends (or doesn't), but on the personal beliefs they hold and how those beliefs influence action. If Rick Santorum's personal faith somehow dictates that the legal marriages of gay men and lesbians should be annulled by the government... yes, I am going to consider that when I vote against him, regardless of his church membership.

To people of faith, religious belief profoundly influences our professional lives. If it does not, it is only a shadowy outline of what faith should be. As voters, we should not pretend otherwise, and with overtly Christian candidates we should support those who reflect prayerfully, live with integrity, and whose faith guides them to positions we support.

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